The Heroin Miracle (Part Two of Two)

Continued from Part One

We will likely never know how much heroin Bayer actually produced or how much of a profit they made from this wonder drug of theirs.   Some available data suggests that they were producing about a ton of heroin a year by 1899 and transporting it to twenty-three countries.   Heroin was available in cough drops, tablets, in liquid form, etc.   To be fair, Bayer never advertised heroin to the public but, then again, they didn’t need to.   The advertisements aimed at physicians ensured that patients eventually got the word about this marvelous new product. 51HMzVDTJqL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-v3-big,TopRight,0,-55_SX278_SY278_PIkin4,BottomRight,1,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_[1]

During the sixteen years that followed its release, heroin was available just about everywhere.  Not only could it be bought over the counter at any corner pharmacy, it could be purchased by mail order as well.   The Bayer brand name was something any drug purchaser could rely on and the concept of “drug addiction”, if it was considered at all, was largely confined to “hard drugs” such as opium. 

But the honeymoon didn’t last long as far as heroin was concerned.  While one doctor, A. Morel-Lavallee suggested in 1902 that heroin could be used to “demorphinize” morphine addicts, other doctors began reporting cases of heroin withdrawal in the medical literature.  Despite efforts to present heroin as a “non-addictive” pain reliever, it quickly proved to be nothing of the kind.   If anything, heroin addiction appeared even worse than with morphine. 

Perhaps more than in any other country, the heroin epidemic hit the United States especially hard.  Though other countries such as Canada, Great Britain, and Germany had federal laws to control dangerous pharmaceuticals, the U.S. Constitution placed medical regulation almost exclusively under state control.   While many states had laws in place requiring heroin, cocaine, or morphine to be only available by prescription, bypassing the laws proved to be as simple as crossing state lines to get access to these same drugs with little hassle. 

By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, heroin’s addictive potential became all too apparent.   In New York City, the first case of heroin addiction was admitted to Bellevue Hospital in 1910 and by 1915, there were more than four hundred.   A 1912 news story I found reflected this growing mistrust.   “Heroin, which is derived from morphine, is so frequently employed in the treatment of various diseases that the question of formation of habit from its use is a serious one.”  The article goes on to warn that even physicians appear likely to underestimate the addiction risks of heroin and often prescribed it freely without monitoring whether patients were becoming addicted.    

According to the Psychiatric Bulletin of the New York State Hospitals, most of these new addicts being seen in Bellevue were gang members who treated it as a recreational drug.   The Tenderloin district of New York became a major hub of the underground heroin trade with “snuffing” (taking in heroin nasally by inhaling) becoming increasingly popular among drug addicts.   Though medical doctors and anti-drug activists were warning that a new epidemic of heroin abuse was on the rise, police and prosecutors were still limited by what they could do about it.

By 1914, the crackdown on heroin and cocaine really began with the passing of the Harrison  Narcotic Tax Act.   Mainly focusing on opium and cocaine, the Act basically imposed taxes on the sale and import of opium and other narcotics.   Despite being called a tax act, it was anything but since the lawmakers who drafted the legislation were basically hoping to end rampant drug abuse in the United States.  With the end of World War I, international agreements were made part of the Treaty of Versailles and forced all participating nations to pass their own drug laws.

Despite the Act, doctors were still free to prescribe heroin and morphine to their patients.   Unfortunately, the Act also banned doctors from prescribing narcotics for people who admitted being addicted.    By 1919, all addicts were essentially transformed into criminals since they could no longer get their drugs legally.   To deal with this new demand, a black market for drugs began to flourish, especially in Eastern cities such as New York drugs that were either stolen from legitimate companies or smuggled in from other countries were available.   While the government tried cracking down on drug smuggling, dealing with legally available narcotic drugs was often a nightmare for everyone involved. 

Doctor Alexander Lambert, professor of medicine at Cornell University and noted substance abuse expert warned in 1924 that heroin was a “vice of the underworld” and that most of the heroin addicts he saw were young men between the ages of seventeen and twenty-five.   Not only was heroin easy to get but drug dealers made enormous profits by “cutting” their products with other chemicals that resembled heroin enough to fool customers into thinking that they were buying pure heroin (criminals weren’t obliged to follow the Pure Food and Drug Act).   

It was during the early 1920s that many drug users supported their habit by collecting scrap metal from junkyards to sell for drug money (which is what earned them the name of “junkies”).   There was also a sharp rise in violent crime due to the need for money to buy drugs though not enough to justify the hysteria about narcotics that was brewing at the time.

The fact that this was the same era that saw the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment and the rise of Prohibition is probably no coincidence.   Alcohol had long been a target by organizations such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union for its perceived role in corrupting impressionable young people and undermining public morality.  As well, the rising animosity towards racial minorities that led to stricter immigration laws keeping out “undesirables” such as Chinese and East European refugees was often linked to fears of the “Yellow Peril” and the opium that transformed them into drug-crazed fiends.   That many of those same gang members who used heroin often belonged to these despised minorities was hardly overlooked.  

Along with newspaper stories describing alcoholics who ruined their lives and the lives of people around them, there were also stories about the dread Dope Fiends who stalked “normal” people and threatened society itself.    The true king of yellow journalism was, of course, William Randolph Hearst, “Citizen Kane” himself.    Long an advocate of using fear to sell papers, Hearst latched onto any new trend he could find.  Whether it was denouncing the “Yellow Peril” (fear of orientals), the “Red Peril” (fear of communists), or “voodoo satanic music” (jazz), Hearst’s editorials were there to feed the terror of the American people.

During the 1920s and 1930s, Hearst’s editors relentlessly promoted the idea that Drugs = Violent Crime.  Along with familiar narcotics such as opium and cocaine, heroin and cannabis were particularly singled out.   Heroin, since it was regarded as just another form of opium, and cannabis due to its Hispanic associations.  Even the name “marijuana” (Mexican slang for the plant) was promoted by Hearst as a way of slandering Mexicans.  Usually just called cannabis or hemp, it says a lot about the power of Hearst’s editorials that just about everyone began calling it marijuana as a result of his influence. 

With anti-drug rhetoric such as this dominating the debate over drugs such as heroin and morphine, it’s hardly surprising that the political climate was shifting towards more draconian laws.  With the end of Prohibition in 1933, newspapers and conservative lawmakers needed a new cause and the anti-drug era truly began.

Remember Bayer?  Though heroin would never be as profitable as they originally hoped,  they continued to produce it until 1913.   Heinrich Dreser terminated his association with Bayer a year later and moved to Dusseldorf to found his own pharmacological academy.    Despite rumours that he was a heroin addict as well, he seemed to live his final years in comfort, courtesy of the fortune he had made from both heroin and aspirin.   He died in 1924, the same year that the U.S. banned heroin completely.   

Ironically, Dreser died of a stroke, something that might have been avoided if he had known to take an aspirin a day as patients at risk are advised to do nowadays.   While aspirin continues to be sold worldwide with new applications being discovered each decade,  Great Britain remains the only country in the world to allow heroin for treating chronic pain (95 percent of all medically prescribed heroin is sold there).   But heroin’s popularity as a street drug remains greater than ever.   With millions of heroin users worldwide and  billions being spent on anti-drug policies, the miracle drug that Dreser and Bayer gave the world is still changing lives. 

Just not in the way they had originally hoped.


Related Stories

  • The Heroin Miracle (Part One of Three)
  • Sexual Discounting and High-Risk Behaviour
  • The Turing Problem (Part 1)


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